I am delighted to welcome Giulio Boccaletti to The Nature Conservancy as Managing Director for Global Freshwater.
Securing fresh water is one of the highest priorities The Nature Conservancy is pursuing to ensure the health of our natural systems and human prosperity. Giulio brings great experience to his new leadership role.
Giulio joins the Conservancy from McKinsey and Company, where he founded the firm’s Global Water Resource Initiative and was one of the leaders of the firm’s Sustainability and Resource Productivity Practice. He led projects on the ground in Ethiopia, India, Jordan, South Africa and across Europe and the U.S. His clients included financial institutions, large manufacturing companies, food and beverage companies, mining companies, oil and gas companies, multilateral institutions and individual governments attempting sector transformation.
Giulio holds a holds a master’s degree in theoretical physics from the University of Bologna, Italy, and a master’s and PhD in Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences from Princeton University, where he was a NASA Earth Systems Science Fellow. He also worked as a physical oceanographer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he specialized in geophysical fluid dynamics and climate science.
Giulio and I recently discussed his view of the world’s freshwater crisis and the Conservancy’s unique role in tackling it.
Tercek: What are the biggest challenges facing our freshwater resources today?
Boccaletti: This is a critical time for water resources globally. We’re essentially driving blind and risk crashing if we don’t steer the use of our water resources towards a sustainable path. Water is not just part of our landscape, it is a fundamental infrastructure for our societies. Because of this, there are three fundamental challenges that have emerged over the last decade that are shaping the way we think about water.
The first is that under business-as-usual we’re going to spend a lot of money on infrastructure that we can’t really afford. Today we spend $600 billion worldwide on capital intensive water infrastructure. That will likely need to grow to $1-2 trillion in coming years, as countries develop and people come to expect higher levels of service and protection. In general, water infrastructure is being paid for by the government sector, which increasingly doesn’t have the money or access to finance. So one of the big problems we’re facing is that, as the need to manage and supply water grows, we will need to find less capital-intensive, smarter and more affordable ways of doing so.
The second issue is that sectors like agriculture, mining and energy production, which are growing to support the global economy, require more and more water. The companies in those sectors see water scarcity, floods and the management of water quality as serious threats to their business continuity, and are increasingly becoming frustrated by the fact that the traditional water sector is unable to provide the answers. In the absence of solutions there is a real risk that competing demands for water end up straining water systems and jeopardizing economic activities.
Finally, the third challenge is that a number of things that we care about and are critical for global well-being—things like food, health and urbanization—are colliding with water scarcity. Some call it the water-energy-food nexus: how are we going to provide the amount of food, energy and goods we require with the limited resources we have?
If we don’t solve these issues, we will drive our water systems to collapse, and with them the natural capital they store.
Tercek: Solving these problems is obviously a huge undertaking. It will take a lot of collaboration, and the more strategies the better. But what do you see as the Conservancy’s unique role in addressing the challenge?
Boccaletti: I think The Nature Conservancy is in a unique position. First of all, it has an unusually high level of experience on the ground. Water is a practitioner’s game. It’s not a theorist’s game. Solving water problems requires understanding the complexities on an individual watershed basis, which is demanding on resources and requires time and experience. The fact that the Conservancy has a wealth of resources and expertise on the ground is an important asset to solving water problems.
Second is that the Conservancy has a good and growing track record of engagement with the private sector. Engagement with the private sector is tricky, but there is no way in today’s world that we’re going to solve the issues of water resource management without the private sector. Because so many pressures and demands are straining our water resources, decisions about agriculture, energy, mining and cities are also decisions about water. We need to work with all actors, and the Conservancy knows how to do that better than most.
The third important thing, and this speaks to our global framework, is we’re focused on global solutions. The water sector is full of people focused on the problem, not the solution. So when the Conservancy comes along with a scientific, solution-based mindset, it makes an immense difference. Its experience in solving problems through the deployment of philanthropic capital and its ability to innovate are second to none. In my view, all of this gives the Conservancy a huge potential to be truly transformative.
Tercek: Given how big the problems are, how are we going to set realistic goals and measure our success?
Boccaletti: Yes, we need to set goals, but I’m coming to the Conservancy believing that we can change the world for the better. I think we ought to be ambitious—also realistic, but first ambitious.
I think we will keep ourselves realistic in two ways. First, we have people on the ground, interacting with stakeholders, keeping us real and grounded. We operate from a global point of view and are recognized as a global leader, but state and country experiences are the assets on which we’re building this global point of view—otherwise it’s just theorizing.
Second, our philanthropic model is unparalleled and it is a critical anchor for us. We are stewards of our donors’ and members’ resources, who want to see impact through us. The discipline that comes from that accountability is important to setting realistic goals, and that discipline balances ambition. Track records will be essential in this. If we can’t convince those who provide us with resources that we can achieve the impact we aim for, then we are not going to be able to scale.
Tercek: What are the biggest opportunities out there? How can we make a big dent in the problem and get the best return on our conservation investment?
Boccaletti: I’ve only been on the job for a few weeks now and have already found a long list of opportunities. The question is how do we make them have global impact and scale. In reference to the first trend I mentioned—all of the infrastructure that needs to be built that we can’t afford—there are examples around the world where we’re blending natural infrastructure with grey infrastructure to solve problems like restoring floodplains or managing catchments. We have enormous experience in using nature to realize more dynamic solutions to water management problems.
All actors see water scarcity and flooding as a risk to business, and, to that point, the work the Conservancy has done on water funds can be truly transformational. We’ve been ambitious on those but need to push the adoption of these water funds even more as platforms that different stakeholders can use to address water issues together in a particular basin.
There is also a massive opportunity in the place where food, energy and water converge. It is an opportunity because we can’t afford to get it wrong. It boils down to finding a recipe for sustainable economic development so that we can do things like feed the two to three billion people that will be added to our global population over the years, or improve the way we bring energy to regions like Africa or Southeast Asia. And I think the Conservancy can bring to the table a number of ways to do this that is consistent with the environmental resources we have, so development today doesn’t jeopardize what our children will have in 20-40 years.
Tercek: Where’s your favorite place you’ve recently visited?
Boccaletti: Can I give you two?
Recently for pleasure I visited Australia. I’m a bit of a water fanatic; I see everything through a water lens. Australia is a fascinating place because over the last 10-15 years it has suffered from some of the most severe droughts the world has ever seen, and they’ve created institutions that allow them to survive changes that would have crippled any other economy. The challenges to water there are immense. I think Australia is fascinating and look forward to working with the Conservancy’s programs there.
My second favorite place is Ethiopia. It’s 100 million hectares, 100 million people, one of the poorest countries in the world, yet one of the fastest growing, with half of its population under the age of 18. Eighty percent of the Nile starts there. They do not have access to sea and have very limited mineral resources. What they have is land and freshwater, but very limited capacity and resources to manage either, to secure the future of people and their natural capital. How that country will choose to manage its water resources largely still needs to be written. It’s an inspiring challenge and it is the sort of challenge that the Conservancy can be ideally placed to help solve.
Mark Tercek is the president and CEO of The Nature Conservancy. You can follow Mark on Twitter @MarkTercek.
[Image: Giulio Boccaletti. Image source: TNC]